Modern Polish History

Instructor: Dr. Rafael Witkowski (Lecture)

Consultant: There is no consultant for this class

The NCSU course number is HI298 (Special topics)


Student Learning Objectives:

By the end of this course, students will be able to:

Explain economic, political, and social factors impelling the various national groups in East-Central Europe (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary);fferentiate the geographical identity of Poland and East-Central Europe from that of areas to the     west;

Consider the reasons for the backwardness of Poland and East-Central Europe and the diversion of  that area from the general path of European economic development in the 16th and 17th centuries;

Discuss the situation of the agricultural peasant in the economic and social order;

Outline the political decline of the Poland and East Central Europe in the course of the 17th and  18th  centuries and efforts to reform it at the end of that period;

Discuss the nationalism arising from the Napoleonic era and later and its role in changing the political and economic relationships between the peasantry and other socio-economic groups;

Consider the role of scientific agriculture (educational institutions and societies) in the changing relationships on the land;

Discuss national independence movements and their effects;

Outline the major events affecting the various nationalities in gaining independence during and after World War I (Versailles  et al.);

Monitor events in the inter-war period against the backdrop of the rise of Soviet Russia and Nazi


Portray the fate of Poland and its neighboring states during World War II and in the immediate aftermath  of war (the Communist Party assumption of power and its policies);

Cover the events and personalities involved in the ebb and flow of Communist Party fortunes during various crises (1956, 1968/70, 1980, 1989);

Consider the situation since 1989 and in the return of Poland and its neighbors to “Western Europe”;

Explain the international context of the events and developments covered in the course.


Basic Textbooks (required):

Lukowski, Jerzy and Hubert Zawadzki.  A Concise History of Poland.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001 or the later, 2nd edition 2006.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodland: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Wandycz, Piotr.  The Price of Freedom. 2nd ed.  New York: Routledge, 2001.


Other Books: (alphabetical by author)

Berend, Ivan T., and Gyorgy Ranki.  Economic Development in East-Central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.  New York and London:  Columbia University Press, 1974.

Chirot, Daniel.  The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe: Economics & Politics from the Middle Ages until the Early Twentieth Century.  Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989.

Gros, Daniel, and Alfred Steinherr.  Economic Transition in Central and Eastern Europe: Planting the Seeds.  New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.



Individual Class Sessions


1. General Geographical Overview of East-Central Europe

a. Where is East Central Europe?  General geography, especially physical.

b. What are the principle indicators of climate in this region?  Rainfall, temperatures, growing season, soils, terrain, river systems, mountain ranges.

c. Who lives where and how long have they been there?  Relationships in size and number.  Are all states naturally equally endowed or are they treated differently because of the literal weight they carry by numbers, strategic location, and tradition?  Primary production: agriculture, mining, and forestry.


2. General Outline of the Political History of East-Central Europe since 1501 (1453?)

a. The early history of the area.  Christianization by whom and by what means?  Does religion make a difference?

b. The rise of Poland and Hungary.  The peculiar status of historic Hungary as a result of the Turkish victories of the 16th century.  Sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683.  The rise of Muscovy and Prussia; the continued presence of the Habsburg state at Vienna.

c. Industrialization and its attendant progress.  The lingering backwardness of large parts of East Central Europe. How to obtain (regain) one’s state?  Nationalism, war, and revolution in the borderlands.


3. The Agricultural “Revolution” in East-Central Europe of the 16th and 17th Centuries

a. East-Central Europe takes a road different from that in the far western parts of Europe.

b. Why?  Did the progress along the Atlantic littoral cause, contribute to, have little effect on, or was merely

contemporary with the decline of cities and the rise of the “second serfdom” in East-Central Europe?

c. Who inhabited the towns?  Why did the towns decline?  What was the role of grain in this process?  Did internal processes in the Polish state contribute to the process there?


4. The 17th-Century Crisis in East-Central Europe

a. The Cossack revolt on the eastern frontiers of Poland in 1648 and its social, political, and economic

effects.  Was the revolt a peasant revolt?  When do Ukrainians become a “nationality” and the effects of

their “temporary” alliance with Muscovy?  The consequences of the Cossack revolt for Poland.

b. The battle of the White Mountain in Bohemia and the reduction of the Czechs to a peasant class in a “German” country: the Austrian monarchy. The disappearance of the Czechs from European history for 200 years.

c. The defeat of the Turks at Vienna (1683) and the reemergence of Hungary as an internal and external question for Austria.


5. The 18th Century: Political Nadir and Political Renaissance in Poland

a. The parlous state of Polish cultural and political life in the first half of the 18th century.  But the magnates grow richer.

b. The revival of Polish culture; the Partitions.

c. The Four-Year Sejm and its Constitution in Poland.  Social groups and the Constitution.  The last independent state goes under.




6. Napoleon, and the Development of Scientific Agriculture

a. The effect of Napoleon. The last independent state goes under—again. Napoleon and East-Central Europe in general.

b. Nationalism becomes the order of the day in the Romantic era, the province of classes other than the aristocracy: What is the “Nation"?

c. Science and technology. Technologische Hochschule:Schools and Societies. Parallels to developments in England, France, and the German state;  universities and other higher schools of learning turn from Classical and philological studies to mathematical and physical sciences and practical studies. Study abroad.


7. Emancipation of the Peasantry and Nationalism in the Various Areas of East-Central Europe

a. The first stirrings of national consciousness in various groups in East Central Europe: national uprisings in Poland;

the Hungarian move for independence; the Czech national awakening.

b. The Polish Uprisings of 1830 and 1863. Manifestation of national feeling in opposition to foreign rule or influence

or conflict between segments within the dominant national group?  Interplay?

c. The gaining by Hungary of equal status with the German Austrians in 1867.  Where are the Czechs?  The Slovaks?

8. Worker and Peasant: Peasant Parties and the Rise of Marxism in East-Central Europe

a. The rise of all-encompassing theories of the progress of history.  Who moves forward when?  Marx and the peasant. 

Where does the peasantry fit into the picture?  Is the peasantry neglected or disregarded?

b. Where is the peasantry to go, literally and figuratively?  The revolt of the peasantry in the mid-19th century. 

Different types of revolt.  Peasant parties.

c. Special cases after 1863. Prussian Poland: Kulturkampf and Ansiedlungskommission; Austrian Poland: autonomy; Russian Poland: industrialization.


9. World War I.

a. War makes a difference.  The unusual and, for the independence of East Central European peoples, beneficial realignment of  international alliances. The Poles find their partitioning powers on opposite sides of the war and appear in all three of the partitioning states’ armies.

                b. German/Austro-Hungarian ascendency, 1915-1917;

                c. Temporary disappearance of Russia brings instability as revolution opens the door for experiment


                Destruction and chaos.


10. Versailles and the Treaty System.

a. The role of the United States (Wilson) in promoting nation-states.  Problems of rebuilding states—and building     them from scratch.  Fiscal problems in their international context;

                b. Loss of the Russian market.

                c. Writing constitutions.




11. Independent East-Central Europe after Close of that War.

                a. Land reform.  State capitalism and authoritarian government.

                b. The Great Depression.

                c. Retreat from constitutional government.  Stances toward resurgent Germany and Russia.


12. World War II and the Takeovers by the Soviet Union

                a. Extraordinary sequel to World War I: a second Thirty-Years War?

                b. Special case of Poland.  Nazi-Soviet cooperation in 1939-41.  Nazi-Soviet conflict and role of the West;

                c. Competing governments.  Extreme dislocations.  Wholesale transfers of huge populations.




13. The Upheavals of 1956 in Poland and Hungary and their Consequences (1968, 1980)

                a. Stalinism. Collectivization. Show trials.  Death of Stalin and the “Thaw” in the Cold War.

b. 1956 in June (Poznan) and October (Warsaw and Budapest).  Gomulka’s Poland: gradual stultification and the return of repression.  Kadar’s Hungary: crushing invasion, then gradual liberalization? 

c. The “Prague Spring” of 1968; cultural manifestations in Poland.  Treaty of Poland with West Germany in 1970 and Gierek’s experiment and resulting debt crises everywhere.  Environmental and structural problems in the system.  Walesa and Solidarity: Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.  Technological revolution in the West (photocopying, PC) affect East Central Europe.